Flu is raging in Colorado and across the nation right now, and the only recommendation by conventional medicine is to go in and get your flu shot. Here in the world of Chinese medicine, we recommend stocking up on specific herbal formulas that will chase the nasty bug away if it bites you!
I have been using Chinese herbal medicine for so long, that I am always surprised when patients come in having just come back from the doctor with another antibiotic for a sinus or respiratory infection following a bad cold or flu episode. I think to myself: why did they wait so long to come in? And I realize yet again that most patients do not comprehend the power of Chinese herbs, nor understand how to use them.
Another common scenario is patients canceling because they have cold or flu symptoms. While I understand not wanting to leave the house when sick, I would love to see more people come in for some preemptive assistance with herbs! In addition, a good acupuncture treatment can really help chase an early stage virus away, or at the very least help ease uncomfortable symptoms. That said, if you have a fever, or are clearly contagious, we would encourage you not to come back for acupuncture in the clinic, where you will expose others.
The effectiveness of Chinese herbal formulas for viral or bacterial infections, if applied correctly and at the right dosage, still amazes me even though I have come to accept it. Even if you don't stop the viral invasion in its tracks with some well-timed and well-dosed herbs and supplements, you can usually shorten the duration by many days, as well as spare yourself from bothersome lingering symptoms that could lead to secondary bacterial infection.
I trained in Chinese herbs long before I went through acupuncture school. My family and I have not had to use antibiotics for as long as I can remember. Apart from an H1N1 flu virus that knocked us off our feet several years ago (although we treated ourselves all the way through without complicating symptoms), we usually resolve viral illnesses quickly.
In light of this experience, I believe that Chinese herbs deserve much greater scrutiny with regard to the current Western medical dilemma of antibiotic over-use, not to mention the woefully inadequate array of antivirals. I am perplexed at how overlooked they have been. (Although they are non patent-able and that may partially explain the lack of interest.)
It is important for those new to an herbal approach to understand that Chinese herbs work very differently than Western drugs. Unless the patient understands the differences, they may give up or drop herbal therapy due to inexperience or unfamiliarity. I have found several "keys" to the successful use of Chinese herbs for viral illness. These include:
1) Start the use of Chinese antivirals in high doses at the first sign of viral illness. The longer you wait, the more chance there is for the virus to settle in to the throat, ears, lung, or sinus. As a general recommendation, you cannot go wrong with Gan Mao Ling and Viracid in the treatment of any early stage viral attack. I have these two supplements in my medicine cabinet at all times. Lonicera Complex (a variation of the classical Chinese formula Yin Qiao San) is another commonly used herbal formula specifically for early stage symptoms, such as sore throat, nasal congestion and headache. Combine Viracid with any Chinese herbal formula to strengthen the antiviral support.
2) See your Chinese medical practitioner as soon can for guidance as to the right dosage and type of formula, based on your symptoms. Chinese herbal formulas guide the antibacterial or antiviral activity to specific body areas, such as the lung, sinus, or ears, and address additional aspects of illness such as cold or heat, damp or phlegm.
3) I have seen the right formula not work at the wrong dose. Don't be afraid to double recommended doses of antivirals in the beginning. If you get some loose stools as a result, that is normal.
4) Be patient. Chinese herbs do not provide immediate symptomatic relief. They are working at a deeper level to support the immune system, fight pathogenic influences, and actual heal the body. This takes time. It may take several days before you start feeling better.
5) You may feel worse before you feel better. Strong doses of herbs stimulate the body to fight harder, and cause more die-off reaction from the virus or bacteria.
6) Change the formula if your symptoms change. In general you want symptoms to move "up and out". If a cold goes from a sore throat to lots of nasal discharge, for example, that is a good sign. If you suddenly develop a cough or sinus pressure headache, then the formula must change. See your practitioner for guidance.
7) Be careful with your diet during illness. In general, you want to avoid all forms of dairy and sugar including fruit juice, alcohol, and wheat/gluten products. Emphasize vegetable and meat broths, low-glycemic fruit (such as blueberries and grapefruit), vegetable juicing, and rice, millet or quinoa congees (if you are eating grains).
8) Don't forget to dose up on your vitamin D, C and A. Actually, Viracid contains a very high dose of vitamin A, so be careful not to double up. You can safe take up to 3000mg of vitamin C per day, and 5-10,000IU of vitamin D during illness. A hefty dose of three grams of EPA/DHA fish oil is also important.
Further Note on Vitamin D: It is very important for immune health to optimize your vitamin D levels by periodically getting it tested. Ideal levels should hover around 50-80 ng/dL. I was surprised to find how low my levels were, as I was supplementing regularly at a dose I thought was optimal. If you find you are getting sick more often, get tested. If you are low, take 10,000 IU per day for a week, then 5000 IU daily for a couple months before you retest. When your levels are back within an optimal range, most people can reduce daily dosage to roughly 2000IU/day. Be sure to add in your multivitamin D amount if you are taking vitamin D separately!
Conditions treated most effectively with Chinese herbs include: colds and flus, sinus infections, cough and bronchitis, sore throat, ear infection, and urinary and genitourinary tract infections.